Welcome to the jungle

Pub date June 25, 2008
WriterMatt Sussman
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

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THE QUEER ISSUE Mark Twain’s observation (cribbed from poet Thomas Campbell) that "distance lends enchantment to the view" could serve as a guiding axiom for the languorous, enchanting films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Apichatpong shows more than he tells, and his camera often obscures rather than explicates the minute, alchemical operations taking place before it.

Somnambulant features such as the day-tripping Blissfully Yours (2002), the shape-shifting gay fable Tropical Malady (2004), and the double-exposed parental portrait Syndromes and a Century (2006) have left many critics bewildered but entranced. Others just seem confused by the elliptical, dream-like logic of the films, in which local lore and landscape shape the narrative as much as characters’ peripherally observed actions. Viewers hoping for glints of elucidation in Apichatpong’s juvenilia and nonfeature projects will probably be disappointed by "Mysterious Objects," the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ latest program honoring the director, for as its title indicates, his short films may be his most enigmatic.

All of Apichatpong’s signature traits — a fascination with the local and mundane, an unabashed love of syrupy pop songs, and a flair for throwing curve balls — are present in this grab bag of films made between 1994 and 2007. In the gleeful Anthem (2006) three elderly women listen to a supposedly blessed techno-lite number. Inexplicably, they are dropped, table and all, into a busy gym (and into the dead center of a badminton match), around which the camera makes multiple 360-degree circuits. Other such narrative jumps merely frustrate. Malee and the Boy (1999) begins with the scrolling text of a transcribed comic book, then switches to footage of hospital visitors. Whereas Anthem suggests a leap of faith, Malee just feels indecisive.

The program’s heart is Worldly Desires (2005), a half-hour trek across the same superstition-laden terrain of Tropical Malady. Dedicated to his "memories of the jungle," Worldly Desires is Apichatpong’s most meta film yet: a music video, a romantic drama, and a composite document crafted from "behind the scenes" footage.

In the opening sequence, a forest’s nighttime choir of insects is interrupted by a bossa nova groove. Suddenly a spotlight washes out the middle ground, illuminating the camera and lighting rigs trained on a singer and her background dancers as she lip-synchs a love song with familial undercurrents. The next few shots follow a man and woman as they hurry through the brush. It takes a few seconds before one can disambiguate the crosshairs in the center of the frame from the dense foliage.

Apichatpong keeps us at the periphery. Each re-shoot of the video is from the same, distanced vantage point. The couple’s arduous journey to find an enchanted tree unfolds through playback monitors, the director’s instructions, and the grumblings and random musings of an exhausted crew. We’re never told if the lovers cross paths with the pop star, or whether what we’re watching is the staging of something staged or a video diary.

Though Tropical Malady‘s first half focuses on a gay love story, it feels somewhat disingenuous to pin a queer sensibility on Apichatpong, even if he is gay. However, with its humorous foregrounding of the labor-intensive means by which the pop culture industry packages "normal" heterosexual love, Worldly Desires certainly invites queer labeling — if not at least queer readings such as this critic’s.


Thurs, July 3, 7:30 p.m. (program 1) and Sun, July 6, 2 p.m. (program 2), $8

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission, SF

(415) 978-2787